Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

The Bob Seger System—
2+2=?/Death Row


Released 1968 on Capitol
The Seth Man, January 2002ce
January 1968 was the month and year of this single’s release, and I can barely believe it. Because this first single by The Bob Seger System pulled no punches whatsoever and both sides were marked not only by rampant fuzz guitar and desperate vocals, but featured subject matter that was more than just a tad controversial for its time. And although The Bob Seger System were Detroit contemporaries of The MC5, Stooges and The Rationals, Seger’s earliest material is still hugely unknown by those generations too young or too old to recall Bob Seger as being anything other than artist capable of only second division AOR-FM schlock, post-Springsteen faux working class/reg’lar guy string o’ hits on da jukebox ala “Like A Rock.” But as a young rock’n’roller, Bob Seger was testifying to a far higher power with a far more electric (read as: Detroit) energy, recording a blizzard of singles with The Last Heard (each a foray into completely different genres) then paring down the group to a trio and re-christening them The Bob Seger System. Their excellent debut album, “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” was preceded by their debut single, “2+2=?”/“Death Row.” And they were both roughed up, righteous rockk’n’roll that stood on their own two feet casting shadows 20 feet long with a bloody fist raised in the air at the world and shouting: “Yeaauuggghhhh!!!!”

Even though “2+2=?” appears on side two of the aforementioned “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” the single mix is entirely different (as well as being in mono which precludes the reckless stereo panning applied to the drumming.) The level of the fuzz rhythm guitar is exchanged in magnitude with the drums, which here are thrown all the way up, way past competing with everything else. The vocals are just as in your face, roaring out plainspoken but effectively thought-provoking anti-draft sentiments. Which is puzzling, given the fact it was released on no less a major label than Capitol in early 1968 (Perhaps they thought its prominent fuzz guitar was far more degenerate an element for radio play, hence its submersion into the deep sonic distance.) But for all this, there is an addition of a huge, growling fuzz guitar cutting through the previously tense “dead air” break near the coda on the album version, adding a further sense of unexpected savageness to an already brutal garage punk rocker.

The terrifying flip side “Death Row” would appear on The Bob Seger System’s second album “Noah,” but it would’ve fit in far better within the confines of their first album. For a start, it’s a minor chord stomper that sees Seger gut-bucket vocalising for all its worth in this frenetic anti-capital punishment song written from the point of view of the accused. As a “Wild Thing” type-guitar howl goes straight into the clanging of “We Love You” jail cell doors, there emerges an over-echoed, dominating and dark electric fuzz setting up a scene of dark grimness emphasized by Bob’s burning lungfuls that point to a place where “every minute feels like five” while just “smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee and waitin’ on my last deal.” Drums bang out a succession of doors sealing of freedom forever and soon Bob’s climbing the walls, hollering “Push out my cigarette/Push away my coffee/And scream out, ‘WHHHHHHHYYYYY?’”

The music falls away for a moment for the plaintively repeated plea: “Ah don’ wanna die.../I don’ wanna die...”

Only to then burst right back: the hi-hat, sharp guitar line and the ever-wheeling in the sky background organ rhythm keep it all descending down that long, long hall in a Gordian knot that fuzz guitar twists and turns like your own stomach when you know there’s no escape from imminent doom. But when Seger lets loose with “I’m startin’ to sweat now” it’s cause for pause there must’ve been a RING of buckets laid out around him with plenty of clean towels and all matter of tarpaulins because he’s been giving it his all, even making that human sponge in reverse Mitch Ryder seem just a tad damp in comparison. It all ends with yelping over and over, “Owwwww! I don’t wanna die! Owww! I don’t wanna die!” as Bob (and the music along with it) screams into infinity.

Raging intensity, and quite possibly as fine and overlooked a Detroit band as there ever was.